Editor's Desk

National Pride

(Observations, Louise Guinther, New York City) Permanent link
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Once upon a time, long before the Berlusconi era, when Italians still deeply valued their national culture, they did their utmost to preserve, invest in and honor their heritage, not only at home but abroad, exporting their pride in the legacy of the greatest artists of their native land wherever they went. In New York, when Italian immigrants began flooding in during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, this devotion took the form of a series of statues funded by popular subscription (organized by the editor of the newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano) and erected around the city in tribute to significant figures in Italian history.

The statue of Christopher Columbus that towers over Columbus Circle is well known, but I suspect fewer residents and visitors to the Big Apple realize that just a few blocks north of there, the composer who towered over the opera scene in Italy for most of the nineteenth century is honored with a statue of his own. It stands in a triangular island, on Broadway between 72nd and 73rd Streets, known as Verdi Square. 

I had been vaguely aware of the presence of the statue since its restoration in 1996, but I hadn't paid close attention until yesterday, when the afternoon sunshine of a perfect spring day, glinting off the figure of Verdi, caught my attention from across the Great White Way. Wandering over to take a look at my favorite composer rising up out of his bed of tulips, I noticed for the first time the four figures surrounding the lower part of the monument. I recognized only one of them right off, but it was clear that they were all characters from the operas, and a helpful sign on the wrought-iron fence confirmed my guesses about the other three. (You can find that information on the Parks Dept. website as well.) With the warm weather having finally arrived and the Met season still going, I highly recommend that any Metgoers who have a few minutes to kill before a performance take a walk up to Verdi Square and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, I leave you with the following description of the dedication of Verdi's statue back in 1906, from the aforementioned website:

"The sculptures were unveiled by Barsotti's grandchild, who pulled a string that released a helium balloon, lifting the monument's red, white and green shroud (the colors of the Italian flag). As it peeled away, a dozen doves — concealed in its folds — were released into the air, and flowers cascaded from the veil upon the participants." 

Oh to have been a New Yorker in the good old days! spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

A Workday at the Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Cinema) Permanent link
In the course of researching an article for OPERA NEWS, I was obliged to spend part of a recent workday watching excerpts from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera on YouTube. (And before you ask, the answer is no — I would not care to switch jobs with you, or anyone else in the world.)
 
In sending a link to the big opera-house scene to a colleague, I started to write "Here's Il Trovatore as you'll never see it anywhere else" — but it suddenly dawned on me that the way things are headed in the opera world, the indignities heaped on Verdi's masterwork in that movie by Groucho, Harpo and friends are as nothing compared with some of the purportedly serious attempts of modern régisseurs to "rethink" beloved repertory staples. Why not a railway station, a fruit cart or a battleship as a fresher and more novel backdrop to the plot than the old-fashioned idea of a Gypsy camp? Why not interpolate "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" into the overture, as a more currently recognizable and "relevant" indication of the kind of nationalist fervor the works of Verdi evoked in their time?
 
Like the old radio team Bob & Ray, who predicted the future with their then-absurdist commercials for the post office, perhaps the Marx Brothers weren't poking fun at opera at all: perhaps they were just ahead of their time. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Around the Town

(Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

For a music-lover, it's always a kick to re-encounter the figures who, in an earlier stage of one's life, were inspirational and influential in shaping one's passions. In January, I dropped in at Symphony Space, where Richard Wilson — head of the music department at my alma mater, Vassar, and my all-time favorite professor — was conducting the staged premiere of his only opera (so far), Aethelred the Unready. I had heard it in a concert version a few years back and was more than curious to see what a director could do with the very fanciful story line of the Anglo-Saxon king whose unfortunate sobriquet so irritates his wife throughout their afterlife together that she prods him to appeal to the Muse of History to have his reputation adjusted for posterity. The score is on the prickly side, with its jagged vocal lines defying any impulse toward lyricism, but felicitous strokes of humorous orchestration abound throughout, and the libretto (Mr. Wilson's own) is imbued with all the wit and whimsy I remember from his lectures. In a performance such as the one at Symphony Space, where the diction was almost miraculously comprehensible and the simple, straightforward and clever staging further clarified the plot, the antics of the helpless Aethelred as he visits a Publicist and a Hypnotist in preparation for his appearance before the intimidating and memory-challenged Muse kept the audience thoroughly engaged.

On a more recent weekend, an invitation from a fellow Vassar alum, who was the most dedicated and instinctively musical of the Madrigal Singers when we were in school together, drew me to the Aaron Copland School of Music, to see what the Queens College Opera Studio was up to this season. The young voices in a David Ronis's tidy, attractive staging of Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco were strikingly well prepared and, under the tutelage of music director James John, more than up to the considerable challenges of Argento's tricky rhythms and rangy, harmonically difficult vocal writing. 

It's tempting for New Yorkers like me, who have the privilege of regularly attending live performances at the Metropolitan Opera, to allow their view of the city's opera-life to become entirely Met-centric. But these two recent forays into smaller-scale operatic ventures have whetted my appetite for more. Instead of paling by comparison with the productions of the big house on Broadway, I find each enhances my appreciation of the other. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Vintage Domingo

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link
Watching Plácido Domingo as Oreste on the recent opening night of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met (Feb. 12), I could not help wondering whether the opera world will ever again have a superstar so utterly dedicated to serving the music at hand as it has in its current “grand old man.”

In late-career, Domingo has wisely relinquished most of the familiar roles with which he was closely associated in his prime and sought out lesser known areas of the repertoire that don’t tax his vocal resources but do give him scope to display his undiminished gifts for shaping expressive phrases, coloring his sound and pouring himself into a role with unstinting passion and intensity. 
 
Oreste is by no means a show-off role, musically or dramatically: there are no prolonged high notes, no long, lyrical melodies to spin, and the character, mired in the agony of his unhappy destiny, has no moments to display the sort of crowd-pleasing romantic heroism that has been Domingo’s trademark. Even when the focus is on him, this is a character living so much inside himself that it would be working against the dramatic current for the performer to do anything flashy to grab the spotlight. Yet there is a depth to Domingo’s portrayal, an artistic honesty and integrity, a complete absorption in the Gluckian ethos and a willingness to be a true ensemble member — in some ways even a supporting player — that places his performance, for me, on the same pedestal as some of his greatest mid-career assumptions. To watch him, in the final pantomime, respond to Susan Graham’s Iphigénie as the conflicted princess alternately repulses, pummels and embraces him; to see how he flinches, waits, yearns, despairs and ultimately freezes, suspended in time at the instant of her yielding, before folding her in his arms with wondrous tenderness — all this without ever distracting from her performance — is to understand what a stage partner is meant to be.
 
I was struck, at the end of the very well received opening, by the somewhat reserved response to Domingo at the curtain call. One might expect an artist of his calibur and his long and illustrious history in the house to be greeted with the operatic equivalent of rock-star hysteria whenever he appears, but here, while he received warm applause, there was no outpouring of mass gratitude and reverence such as have greeted other iconic performers toward the end of their careers. One almost got the sense that Domingo’s very seriousness of approach somehow heads off such demonstrations. Or perhaps the reserve of the reformer Gluck tends to rub off on his fans. But I find myself hoping it was merely an aberration, as I, for one, would like to see this great master given his full due. spacer 
 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER
 

That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Found Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Crossover, Television) Permanent link

From the moment I first won gainful employment at OPERA NEWS, I have regularly faced those uncomfortable cocktail-party moments when some new acquaintance, learning how I earn my living, says with wrinkled nose, “And do you actually like opera?” Now, I know we don’t all have the luxury of choosing a congenial career, and I freely confess that as a college grad desperate for a job, I once interviewed for a newsletter called “Garbage Collector Weekly,” eager to get my foot in the publishing door any way I could. But it’s hard to imagine a consenting adult spending nearly a quarter-century at the same magazine if its subject did not genuinely appeal.

Those conversations are always a rude reminder that opera, though thriving in many respects, is still not exactly a mainstream entertainment. So it always pleases me when I run into it in unexpected places. The most recent such encounter was in a re-run of the Inspector Lewis series on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. Back in the days of Lewis’s erudite predecessor, Inspector Morse, it used to be a fair bet that the culturally savvy protagonist’s elitist pursuits would periodically lead to some reference to the lyric art — perhaps even with some actual music thrown in. But with Morse replaced by his erstwhile sidekick, the distinctly working-class Inspector Lewis, the opportunity for operatic enlightenment seemed to have passed, so I was surprised to find Wagner at the center of a recent episode.

With the murder victim an Oxonian Wagner expert, connected obliquely to a Stasi informer with the code name Siegfried, the master of Bayreuth had a prominent role in the plot, but the fun part for me came toward the end, when Lewis — partly in a nostalgic tribute to his old boss, partly as a way of trying to understand the dark forces at play in the case — put on a Ring recording and sat down to listen. It wasn’t a long excerpt; Lewis’s operatically challenged partner arrived all too soon to pre-empt it with some modern musical drivel of his own. Still, it pleased me to think there might be mystery fans out there in TV-land with no previous experience of the Ring who might be sufficiently drawn in by the intriguing plot references and the brief snippets of that glorious, sweeping score, to find their way to Youtube for a second helping. And from there … who knows? spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

I Fanciulli del Met

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

One of the particular pleasures of my duties at OPERA NEWS is the privilege of attending final dress rehearsals at the Met. If anyone had told me as a young teenager, when I was first bitten by the opera bug, that some day going to the opera would be part of my job, I would have been in a much bigger hurry to grow up.

Of course, just getting to sit there for free in a red-plush seat (during the work day, no less) watching the great vocal artists of our time ply their trade is a pretty nifty perk in itself. But for me, a big part of the fun nowadays is being present along with a whole balcony-full of young people as they discover opera — many of them, no doubt, for the first time.

Last week, the Met revived Gian Carlo del Monaco's lively spaghetti-Western production of Puccini's brilliantly colorful and dramatic, achingly sentimental Fanciulla del West. It gave me a great kick to sense the surprise and excitement of those youngsters as they realized that this elevated art form had room in it for lusty barroom brawls, live horses and gunslinging women holding their own in an overwhelmingly male world. There was a distinctly twenty-first-century-feminist tinge to the audible reaction from the peanut gallery when Minnie first pulled her tiny pistol out of her bosom to fend off the advances of Jack Rance. And there's definitely something to be said for straightforward realism, especially where new audiences are concerned. I strongly doubt that if Minnie and Dick Johnson had appeared in some high-concept production, in the guise of, say, apes or bumble bees, the kids in the family circle would have burst into spontaneous, giggly applause when the heroine surrendered to her first kiss, or cheered her so heartily when she arrived just in time to free him from the posse.

There are times when audience noise can be a most unwanted distraction. (At that very same rehearsal, one fan was so eager to share his admiration of Marcello Giordani's "Ch'ella mi creda" that he shouted "Bravo!"at the top of his lungs just as an emphatic chord from the orchestra punctuated Jack Rance's punching the unfortunate Johnson in the gut. This musically and dramatically misplaced interruption gave the effect that the shouter was encouraging the sheriff's brutality.) The irrepressible and instinctively appropriate responses of the schoolchildren at the back of the house, on the other hand, lent an added charge to the proceeding that enhanced the experience for at least one jaded operagoer down in the orchestra section. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 


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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2